To err is human, to fiddle divine.

Last week I was quite saddened to learn of the death of country music and southern rock legend Charlie Daniels, who is perhaps best known for his 1979 hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

I am not in the least embarrassed to admit that this was one of my favorite songs during my early teen years.  “Devil” was one of the many country music hits from that era that also took the pop/rock charts by storm.  And why not?  Daniels and his band had created a real toe-tapping, knee-slapper of a song.  The lyrics seared themselves (pardon the pun) into the memory; and the tune was as catchy as they come.  You know the story: Satan, the Prince of Lies Himself, was experiencing a labor shortage severe enough to compel him to materialize in the Georgia hill country in hopes of ensnaring the soul of a young fiddle player named Johnny.  To me, a kid who had grown up in the Bible Belt and who had been steeped since birth in Black evangelical Christianity and an equally strong belief in miscellaneous “haints” that still walked the Earth, the song’s premise was not that far-fetched.  (Okay, I admit that I did not really believe in the Devil – or God – but the narrative definitely struck a cultural chord.)

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a classic David and (evil) Goliath story.  Johnny is just a good ol’ boy whose only goal in life seems to be playing his fiddle (“and playin’ it hot”).  Clearly the Devil, who from time immemorial has been honing his musical skills and moreover, possesses a magical “golden fiddle,” will win the proposed fiddling competition and the ultimate prize: Johnny’s immortal soul.  But Johnny’s unshakable faith, not in Almighty God, but his own musical talent and his ability to spin a rousing tale from the seemingly mundane fragments of his backcountry existence – propel him to a truly soulful victory.  

Was Charlie Daniels treating us to a clever allegory of the Common Man versus the Establishment?  Was he harkening back to the ecclesiatical argument that culminated in the Protestant Reformation: faith versus works?

Perhaps you are thinking that I am giving the late Mr. Daniels far too much credit as an intellectual.  If so, you are as wildly mistaken as Satan was about Johnny.  Charlie Daniels was, in fact, a well-read and thoughtful man with an entertainer’s gift for making complex ideas understandable to an audience.  One of the finest examples of this occurred in 1996, when the University of North Carolina – Wilmington (UNCW) tapped Charlie Daniels, who was born in Wilmington, to be its Commencement Speaker.  The choice of Daniels, who was also to receive an honorary Doctorate of Letters, caused an uproar on campus.  Critics argued that Daniels was not “scholarly enough” to deliver the most important address of the academic year.  Rather than shrinking in the face of controversy, Daniels embraced the challenge and went on to deliver one of the most memorable addresses in UNCW’s history.  (Here is the link to his speech:  In other words, like Johnny the fictional fantastic fiddler, Daniels, armed with sheer talent and force of will, had also defeated the formidable forces of the Establishment.  After that, my respect for Daniels as an unflappable Everyman of Letters never diminished.

If there is, in fact, a heaven, I have no doubt that Charlie Daniels is there playing the golden fiddle he earned during his time on Earth.  He beat the Devil once and for all.  But I hear that he will have some real competition from Saints Peter and Paul, who apparently do a helluva good cover of “Dueling Banjos.”

Rest in Peace, Mr. Daniels.  You were, undeniably, “the best there’s ever been.”

At Whit’s End

“Fame can never make us lie down contentedly on a deathbed.”

— Alexander Pope, 1713

On the Monday following the death of pop music diva Whitney Houston, I was approached by a young woman who inquired whether I had heard that Ms. Houston had died.  I replied in the affirmative and, miraculously, somehow managed to refrain from saying something like, “Why are you surprised at the ‘sudden’ death of a person who had abused drugs for decades?”  I am glad that I held my sarcasm in check because the woman then said that the news was so upsetting that “she cried all weekend.”

I was stunned into silence and could only nod.  At the risk of sounding callous, the demise of Ms. Houston barely rippled the surface of my consciousness.  While I admit that I liked a few of the songs that she released in the 1980s and 1990s, for some time Whitney Houston had been little more to me than another pampered, drug-addled celebrity whose career had seen better days.  Her marriage to Bobby Brown and their reality television show did nothing to improve her image n my eyes.  Of course, none of this matters to the people who loved her before she became a star and, perhaps, in spite of her fame.  Their grief is real and deserves more respect than a soundbite on tabloid TV shows.

Perhaps we are too quick to accept the mortal departure of singers, musicians, comedians, actors, and other people who entertain us.  Do we expect — indeed, demand — that these individuals burn out in tragically spectacular fashion?  There are, of course, those stars who dance close to the line of self-destruction and are fortunate enough not to tumble irrevocably into oblivion.  (Yes, Robert Downey, Jr., I am talking about you.  And yes, I am eagerly awaiting the Avengers movie later this year.)  Redemption is big business, and always has been, especially in America.  Martin Luther understood that; and the rest is history.

The loss of Ms. Houston reminds us that prodigious talent often cannot shield those who possess it from the devastation of personal demons or bad choices.  To be sure, we mere mortals who cannot sing, act, or do anything else worthy of the blinding light of fame have many of the same burdens.  And with any luck, our secrets and slip-ups will never be the lead stories on the evening news or TMZ.